Taliban says prisoner release by Afghan government to start by end of March

KABUL (Reuters) – The Afghan government said on Wednesday that it would free 100 Taliban detainees on humanitarian grounds at the end of March, raising uncertainty about the fate of a prisoner release deal with the insurgents, who have demanded that 5,000 detainees be freed.

The deal announced earlier in the day by the Taliban would have removed a major hurdle to the convening of peace talks between the sides as part of a U.S.-brokered process aimed at ending America’s longest war and bringing peace to Afghanistan.

But the announcement by Ashraf Ghani’s government cast fresh doubt on the prospects for the deal, as well as the stalled U.S. peace effort.

“Subject to further discussions” 100 prisoners would be freed “on humanitarian grounds – including health, age and vulnerability to #COVID19 – by March 31 after guarantees by the Taliban and the prisoners that they will not re-enter the fight,” Ghani’s National Security Council said on Twitter, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

That number is far less than the 1,500 prisoners that Ghani recently agreed to release.

The Taliban have demanded that 5,000 detainees must be freed all at once as a pre-condition to peace talks, while the Afghan government is seeking a phased and conditional release.

A deal the insurgents signed with the United States in Doha last month for a U.S. troop withdrawal specified the freeing of up to 5,000 prisoners by March 10.

Kabul was not a party to the Doha accord, which also requires the Taliban to free up to 1,000 prisoners.

Earlier on Wednesday, a Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, said in a tweet that the sides had agreed “that the release of the prisoners will practically start by the end of March.”

U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad said on Twitter that the deal was “a positive development. Technical meetings will continue to make sure the process goes smoothly.”

The deal was struck in a virtual meeting between Taliban and government officials held over Skype because of travel restrictions due to the global coronavirus pandemic.

Also online were American and Qatari officials and members of the International Red Cross, Shaheen said, adding that the Taliban would send a team to the government detention center in Bagram where many of its prisoners are held.

The prisoner impasse has threatened to derail a carefully negotiated peace process outlined in the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in Doha on Feb. 29.

The process is also threatened by a dispute between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s former chief executive, who both claimed the presidency following a disputed September election marred by allegations of widespread fraud.

Their feud has hampered the naming of a team that could hold talks with the Taliban.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to mediate between the two to create an “inclusive” government during a day-long visit to Kabul on Monday, and announced a $1 billion cut in U.S. aid to the country, which he said could be reversed.

In an apparent response to Pompeo’s move, Ghani’s office said on Wednesday he had instructed the defense, interior and finance ministries to cut spending “in the security and defense sector” next year by $1 billion.

Pompeo told a State Department news conference in Washington that his mission to Kabul was “very frustrating.” He said he was unaware of Ghani’s directive.

The United States would continue “to try and convince all the parties, the Taliban included, that it’s time for peace and reconciliation,” Pompeo said, adding that he was optimistic that peace talks would be held.